Revealing values in mathematics education through variety of cultural lenses

Cactus Communications

If you ask an adult what their least favorite subject at school was, they are likely to say mathematics. This response has less to do with mathematics per se than it is about how well it was taught or whether students were supported in their endeavor to learn numbers, master algebra, understand trigonometry, and handle data. To grasp the values of mathematics and how the discipline is viewed by society, we need to see it as a cultural phenomenon first.

It is commonly known that mathematics is the foundation of technology, be it primitive tools or the supercomputers in the 21st century. In turn, this technology shapes our modes of social connection. Thus, learning mathematics is inseparable from the connection with the external environment, and teaching mathematics is also inseparable from the interaction between people. Seen this way, it is hard not to categorize mathematics as a cultural product. Philosophers, educators, and mathematicians who have written about the discipline’s cultural contours have noted how intrinsically enmeshed it is with other fields such as anthropology, sociology, education, philosophy, and psychology.

“While people may readily understand the significance of anthropology to our lives and histories, it is often felt that the objective and the scientific nature of mathematics masks its value relevance,” says Dr. Qiaoping Zhang from the Education University of Hong Kong. “Because research on values in mathematics education is limited and considered unimportant.”

To correct this notion and explore the values that are considered important in teaching and learning mathematics according to various cultures, ECNU Review of Education is putting out a Special Issue this month with Dr. Qiaoping Zhang and Dr. Wee Tiong Seah as its guest editors. Teachers and students in Australia, Pasifika learners in New Zealand, and primary and secondary students in Korea and the Chinese mainland are just some of the participants who will be sharing their stories and ideas about the values they hold dear in mathematics education. This special issue of the journal is being launched as a tribute to the 14th International Congress on Mathematical Education, which is being held from July 14 to 18 in Shanghai, China.

Among the plethora of articles and commentaries in the Special Issue, some of the highlights include:

  • Wee Tiong Seah (University of Melbourne), Qiaoping Zhang, and Alan J. Bishop (Monash University) discussing the role that individuals such as teachers and parents play in affecting the development of students’ values in mathematics education through their views, decisions, and behavior, and emphasizing the importance of bringing humanity back into mathematics education;
  • Yüksel Dede (Gazi University), Veysel Akçakın (Uşak University), and Gürcan Kaya (Burdur Mehmet Akif Ersoy University) exploring the intersection of mathematical values, educational values, and the educational values involved in mathematical modeling tasks in Brazil, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America;
  • Jodie Hunter from Massey University examining the understanding of mathematics educational values and the reasons for rating values at different levels of importance, according to Pasifika students in New Zealand; and
  • Hengjun Tang (Zhejiang Normal University), Wee Tiong Seah, Qiaoping Zhang and Weizhong Zhang (Zhejiang Normal University) using the ‘What I Find Important’ [WIFI] questionnaire to investigate Chinese mainland students’ value structures in mathematics learning across primary, junior secondary, and senior secondary levels.

It must be noted that the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has given greater weight to these discussions. “Prior to the scramble of teachers and students joining online lectures and tutorials last year, it was felt that information and communication technology would have a fundamental influence on mathematics education and could reduce the differences between cultural traditions”, Dr. Seah says. “However, after a year of learning online, might digital learning technology have widened the learning opportunity gaps within and amongst cultural traditions instead?”

Examining whether and how teachers and students have changed their values in mathematics learning as a result of online teaching, and how these values are maintained and sustained alongside the wellbeing of everybody involved, remain as the open-ended questions whose answers are of critical importance as we move forward in a world which is (still) suffering from a pandemic.

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